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Super Simple Motor

In this activity students create a super simple motor using an electromagnet. 

This activity is an example of a simple motor powered by an electromagnetic field. Students will use some basic hardware to build a motor with some (nail) head-spinning results!

Like any motor, this motor depends on the interaction between a permanent magnet and an electromagnet. The permanent magnet is the little super magnet stuck to the screw (as in the image below). The "electromagnet" is the magnetic field created by the current flowing sideways through the magnet.


  • Describe the effect of applying electricity to a magnetic object.


  • Per Student:
    Round “neodymium” (NdFeB) magnet
    * Neodymium magnets can be purchased at hardware stores (such as Lee Valley) or office supply stores. Also called rare earth magnet or “supermagnets”
    Steel nail or screw
    D-cell battery
    Pure copper wire (If the wire has iron in it it will be attracted to the magnet and the motor will not work)

Key Questions

  • What happens if you stick the nail to the other end of the battery?
  • What happens if you turn the magnet upside down?

What To Do



  1. Touch the magnet to the head of the nail, they will stick due to magnetism.
  2. Touch the pointy end of the nail to the bottom of the battery. It will stick because the magnet touching the end of the nail transforms the nail itself into a temporary magnet. Let it dangle from the point.
  3. With one hand, hold one end of the wire to the top of the battery and with the other hand, hold the other end of the wire to the side of the magnet. The magnet and nail will rotate.


  • This is called a homopolar motor. Investigate the physics of a homopolar motor in more detail here.